It’s tough at the top

Leading a small charity is hard work. When things go well you pass on the appreciation to your wonderful team. When things go less well you take all the flack.

It’s small charity week this week (17-21 June 2019) and one of the biggest challenges facing many small charities is how to support and manage the lead member of staff, be they CEO, coordinator, director, project manager or even chair of trustees in charities with no paid staff.

So what are the options open to small charities looking to both manage and support their CEO? What works and what doesn’t? How can CEOs be held accountable and at the same time be given the support and encouragement they need to grow and develop professionally?  Here are a few of the models that I’ve seen in action, along with some of the potential pitfalls. I’d love to hear from others, whether you run a small charity or are a trustee, what you’ve seen work well, and what you find the challenges are.

In reality most charities use a mixture of the models below, depending on the needs of their staff and the capacity of their trustees. If you know of a small charity CEO or chair that would benefit from coaching, please encourage them to take advantage of my offer of a free coaching session – just tweet or email me a few words about the impact your charity makes.

Chair of Trustees as line manager
This can work brilliantly if your chair of trustees has some line management experience. It also depends on the chair having enough time to commit to the role of line manager alongside chairing a board of trustees and probably holding down a full time job and other responsibilities. One way round this is for the vice chair, or another trustee to be the designated line manager.

Clear role descriptions can help so that the trustee knows what’s expected of them (e.g. meeting with the CEO every month, target setting, reviewing progress against the strategic plan, organising annual reviews, ensuring adequate training and professional development opportunities etc). If the role isn’t clearly set out then what tends to happen is that the CEO ends up managing their manager! This is not a good use of anyone’s time or energy.

Another thing to think about is whether it is possible for the trustee line manager and CEO to meet up regularly in person. Skype meetings and phone calls have their place, but regular face-to-face meetings are important too.

Problems can occur when there is tension or conflict between the staff team/CEO and the trustee body, for example if there are performance or competency issues, if the trustees are undertaking a staffing restructure, if there are differences of opinion on the strategic direction the charity should take etc. This puts the trustee line manager in an awkward position of both trying to support the CEO, whilst at the same time holding them to account or making difficult decisions about the charities future.  One solution might be to provide additional support through coaching or mentoring – see more on this below.

Creating a line management sub group
Some charities create a small group of people who are jointly responsible for managing and supporting the CEO. The group can be made up solely of trustees or include other volunteers with specific expertise. The advantage of this is that it shares the workload between more people, and draws on the wisdom and experience of a wider group. The disadvantage is the risk of the CEO feeling like they are being ‘managed by committee’ where they never know who to contact and who they are ultimately responsible to. To avoid this there is usually a chair of the sub group, who would be the CEOs main point of contact. The whole group doesn’t have to meet with the CEO every month; they could be brought in for annual reviews/appraisals or act as a sounding board or support group. As with the trustee line manager model, clear role descriptions and expectations are important here.

Volunteer line manager
You might be lucky enough to find someone willing to act as line manager on a voluntary basis. But be careful – it’s not always as great as it sounds. What you need to think carefully about is lines of accountability. Is the CEO accountable to the line manager or to the trustees? How will the line manager report to the trustees? The other potential pitfall is that the volunteer is unlikely to know very much about the day-to-day running of the charity and you need to be careful that line management doesn’t turn into the CEO simply reporting what’s happened since the last meeting. As with the others, make sure you have clear role descriptions and reporting lines.

Employing a professional coach
Alongside any of the above, many charities opt to employ a coach. This can be on a short term basis, say over six months, or longer term as needed. Coaching is non-directive, and the agenda is led by the client. The role of the coach is to help people think through seemingly intractable problems, think creatively and settle on a way forward that will work for them and their team. For CEOs who are often quite isolated, or too busy with the day-to-day running of a charity to take time out to think strategically, a coaching relationship can be really valuable. Some charities employ a coach instead of having a line manager, and the CEO reports directly to the whole trustee body, usually on how they have delivered against the strategic plan. Others employ a coach as well as having a named line manager, and some employ a coach if the charity is going through a particularly difficult time, or if the CEO needs some extra support, for example when they are new in post, or there have been a lot of changes. If you would like to explore how coaching could help you or your charity please get in touch.

Joining a professional association   
There is also the option of the CEO joining a professional association like the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO who provide networking and professional development opportunities, mentoring, coaching and special interest groups. Membership prices vary depending on annual income. Or for chairs of trustees there’s also the Association of Chairs ( who offer training and support. Both organisations can offer support on getting the relationship right between chair and CEO.

Whatever you decide to do, don’t underestimate the importance of good management and support– your staff will be happier and more productive, and your charity will have a greater impact.